Skip to main content

What are you doing, watching life in the slums?

Dead End

In case you doubted it, there was never a monopoly on Denzel making all the painfully stagey movie adaptations of stage plays. Less still their getting rafts of Oscar nominations. It’s impossible to watch a certain kind of movie – or play, at any rate – without the Coen Brothers’ classic Barton Fink coming to mind, and its title character waxing “lyrical” about a tenement building on the Lower East Side, and the smell of fish, amid copious earnest moralising and an overwhelming air of self-importance. Which is Dead End all over. Like Barton Fink’s fish, it stinks.

Drina: I know that house in the country so well, I can almost build it.

William Wyler was entering a peak period of success at this point; he’d been nominated the previous year for Dodsworth, and would garner another seven nominations and two wins before his third and final statuette came winging his way at the end of the 1950s (for Ben-Hur). Quite a run, and quite a versatile array of genres and subject matter, such was the studio system.

Dead End came at the behest of Samuel Goldwyn, who snapped up the rights to Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 Broadway hit play for a crazy $165k (about $3m in today’s dosh). His intention was to translate the sometimes-unsuitable subject matter – to the Hayes Code – largely uncut. So while Francey (Claire Trevor, Best Supporting Actress nominated) is clearly sickly, her syphilis goes unmentioned. About the strongest allusion to her less-than-reputable lifestyle comes when the henchman of Baby Face Martin (Bogey), sent to call on her, reports that she isn’t up yet, and then adds pointedly “She seemed kind of busy, your Francey”. Obviously, Baby Face – who has returned to the neighbourhood through nostalgia or some such – is less interested in his former squeeze when he learns she’s sullied goods.

Goldwyn lavished a lavish set on the production (cinematographer Gregg Toland and Art Director Richard Day were also Oscar nominated; the former would go on to win for Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, the latter had already taken home two trophies, and would win another six, with twelve other noms besides!) Wyler wanted to shoot authentically on location, perhaps not such a grand idea when it came to swimming in the East River (unless you’re Cosmo Kramer). However, you can see his point. No matter how much it’s dirtied up with the occasional cockroach, the set is resolutely closed and confined, beginning and ending on the artifice of a pan to and from the cityscape. Which means most of the interactions and transitions between characters retain the overt staginess of the play; no matter how many sequences are effectively (noirishly) lit, the end results creak as much as the performances.

The introductory titles signpost the theme, of rich and poor, and how the former are lately encroaching on the East River because of its prettifying views, such that “now terraces look down into the windows of the tenement poor”. This divide is exactly as crudely fashioned as that sounds, with unruly street kidz hanging around a fortress-like doorway guarded by Ward Bond. The stately premises are inhabited by posh totty Kay (Wendy Barrie), and also unlucky rich kid Philip (Charles Peck), who gets a jolly good beating from the urchinz.

These kidz, popularly The Dead End Kids, had mostly appeared in Dead End’s Broadway incarnation and were contracted to United Artists, only to be released to Warner Bros (they also appeared in Angels with Dirty Faces amongst others) after they ran riot on the lot. They’re a wretchedly amateurish bunch, 
given to cries of "I’ll marbleise ya, you goon!" and poised somewhere between Happy Days and Once Upon a Time in America. In particular, the plight of Tommy (Billy Halop), doted over by big sister Drina (what kind of name is Drina? The kind given to a river in the Balkans, it seems). Drina is played by the lovely Sylvia Sidney, who was great in the previous year’s Sabotage. Unfortunately, here she’s saddled with a quite awful wet blanket and doormat character, whose inability to see Tommy’s recalcitrance is especially wearing.

Indeed, it’s surely a bit of an own goal that rich fellow Mr Griswald (Minor Watson) should seem eminently reasonable in wanting Tommy to face justice for knifing him and robbing and mugging Philip. It doesn’t help either that Drina’s protestations that her brother just made a mistake are terribly unpersuasive (“I’m sure he didn’t mean to”), while Griswald’s retorts are pretty good (“Yes, a mistake half-an-inch deep and painful”).

Dave: He was smart, and brave, and decent… at first.

Elsewhere, we have Joel McCrea’s poverty-trap architect Dave, a very McCrea bastion of rugged goodness and so faintly dull. His head’s been turned by upper-crust Kay, but you know he’ll end up with Drina and be the surrogate dad Tommy so desperately needs. Dave’s been set against Baby Face, objecting to his guns and knives approach and proving more than a match for him when it comes to a set-to. The latter is the movie’s biggest concession to, well, the movies, since the point from Dave dropping into the East River to shooting Bogey on a rooftop is about the only interval where Dead End feels genuinely cinematic. That and Kay blanching at the sickly coughing, the filthy roaches in the garbage and the crying babies when she steals her way to Dave’s derelict door.

McCrea apparently kept flinching in his scenes with Bogey, not because the latter was intimidating, but because Humphrey was on the spitty side. Yeuch. Bogey was there largely because they couldn’t get George Raft or Jimmy Cagney, and it would be another four years before he really broke through as a leading man. 

Hunk: We all make mistakes, boss. That’s why they put rubbers on the ends of pencils.

As noted, Dead End received a Best Picture nomination and three other nods in a year featuring ten nominees for the top slot (The Life of Emile Zola won, but The Awful Truth is probably the keeper). I have little compunction in writing this one off, and I doubt even a sympathetic adaptation, geared to actual realism, would have helped. It’s the kind of faintly patronising fare written by the middle classes about the working classes, the kind of thing Mike Leigh would later thrive off, which only further diminishes any pretensions towards drama heft or lingering resonance. Pauline Kael called this “ambience of Broadway social conscience of the 30s” “highly entertaining”, but it really isn’t. Still, Bogey’s mum’s response on seeing him is quite sobering: “Then get out of here, before I cut your face again”. It certainly explains why he got that “plastic”.

Popular posts from this blog

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un